Posts Tagged we need better representation diverse books

WNDMG — Interview and Giveaway with Karla Arenas Valenti

We Need Diverse MG Logo hands holding reading globe with stars and spirals floating around
We Need Diverse MG

Artwork by Aixa Perez-Prado

 

Loteria

Cover art by Dana Sunmar

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Karla Arenas Valenti, author of the extraordinary new MG novel, LOTERIA. This story blends the magic with the real in the spirit of much Latin American literature, and takes places in Mexico. As a writer who strives to celebrate diversity in language and culture in my writing, I found this book especially inspiring and had lots of questions for Karla.

Diversity as a Transformative Experience

APP: Karla, I very much enjoyed reading LOTERIA! Thank you for taking the time to answer some questions.

I love it when authors mix languages and incorporate diverse cultural perspectives in literature. Is that something that you feel was important to this story, and to your other writing.

KAV: Absolutely! In fact, this was one of my objectives in writing “diverse” literature. I see diversity in storytelling as having two prongs: (a) writing or illustrating stories in which all readers can see themselves (diversity serves to ground the reader in the familiar) and (b) writing or illustrating stories that diversify the reader’s experience (diversity serves to transform the reader).Of course, I hope that readers will see themselves in LOTERIA (as I do), but I also wrote this book with the intent of diversifying the personal experience of non-Mexican readers. My goal was to plunge readers into life in a Mexican city: experiencing sounds and sights that are familiar to children in Mexico; exploring culture themes and ideas that are common and beloved in Mexico. By immersing readers in this “diverse” world, I hope they will be transformed, incorporating aspects of this new world into their existing one.

Exploring Big Questions

Illustration by Dana Sunmar

APP: I love that idea, literature as a transformative experience.This book is about one girl but it is also about a philosophical question – whether or not there is free will. How did you come to write about that and why?

KAV: I am a philosopher at heart and am always exploring big questions. As a writer for children, I always try to pose some of these big questions in my stories. This one (the one about free will vs fate) was one I had been trying to write about for many years.

I wanted to find a way to pose the question and present both sides of the argument in a thought-provoking and engaging manner for children. It occurred to me that a game of chance would provide a perfect setting. The question was, which game?

As it turned out, my father provided the answer when he came to visit us and brought a reminder of home: a LOTERIA game set. As we laid out the boards and shuffled the cards, the story began to take shape in my mind and before I knew it, Life and Death had made their grand appearance.

APP: As a  critical and creative thinking teacher, I love the idea of introducing big questions through stories. When you are writing, how important is it to you that your stories make your readers think?

KAV:All of my stories explore some “big” question, whether in a picture book format or a novel. In fact, my biggest challenge as an author is not straying too far in the weds with the big ideas. But making sure there’s enough of a plot to keep my readers engaged.

Extraordinarily Ordinary

LD

Illustration by Dana Sunmar

APP: There certainly is plenty of plot to keep readers very much engaged in Loteria! I enjoyed the relationship between Life and Death, both of whom are characters in the book. Did you base these characters’ personalities purely on your imagination or are they grounded in Mexican folklore and/or belief systems?

KAV: Catrina is a beloved Mexican figure that I cannot take credit for. And in a way, she created Life, for he needed to be her equal – as riveting and wise as Death – in order for the story to work.

APP: I found their relationship very interesting. Yet, they are not the main characters in the story. The main character is an eleven year old girl named Clara. Was it important for you that Clara not be particularly good at anything or have any special talents or abilities?

KAV: Thank you for pointing this out. Yes! This was a deliberate choice. I wanted Clara to be “extraordinarily ordinary” precisely to show that her transformation from ordinary to heroic was not the result of a special trait but rather the ordinary magic that lived within her.

Twists and Turns

APP: I love the idea of being ‘extraordinarily ordinarily’ and still being the main character in a book. As it turns out, her experience is anything but ordinary. Clara is the focus of an extraordinary game played by Life and Death. Did you invent the game of Loteria as it is played in this book, or is this based on an actual game that is played by people?

KAV: It is an actual and very popular game in Mexico. The game is a bit like Bingo with a board that has a grid of sixteen boxes on it. Each board has different images printed on each of the boxes (instead of numbers as is traditional in Bingo).

The game master (cantor) will flip a card from a deck of 54 cards and call out a riddle that relates to that image. Once the players figure out the riddle, they must find it on their board. If they have that image, they place a token on that square. The first person to get four squares in a row wins the game.

APP: Well, now I really want to play the game myself! Solving the riddles sounds like fun. On another note, I was quite surprised at how the story ended. Without giving away any spoilers, can you tell us if you changed your mind about how the story would end while writing it? Or did you know the end from the beginning?

KAV: I knew pretty early on how I wanted the story to end. However, I needed the philosophical justification to make sense. So, I was very deliberate in how I built up the arguments for free will vs fate along the way, such that by the time the reader got to the end, it would all make sense. Unfortunately, that was not at all how things panned out in my first draft.

Ironically, the fate I had planned for Clara did not unfold as I intended. And I had also argued Life and Death into a philosophical conundrum that I could not resolve. What did I do?

You’ll laugh, but I had to give Clara free will to tell the story as she wanted it told. To my great surprise (and relief!) she came up with an answer to the question of free will that I had not anticipated. And it also led to the surprise ending!

Challenge by Design

APP: Wow, that is amazing and it really works for the story. Congratulations on a masterful plot! Ia m wondering about the challenges you faced as you wrote this story.

KAV: The biggest challenge I had was making sure the philosophical debate lined up with the plot, and that every argument (for or against free will) unfolded seamlessly in Clara’s life. My second challenge was making sure I didn’t get too lost in the philosophical aspects of it all. Fortunately, my brilliant editor (Katharine Harrison), was able to give the right amount of guidance to make this work!

APP: Yay for brilliant editors, and editors who are willing to take on books that explore stories from diverse perspectives that may not quite fit mainstream narratives. I find that much Latin American children’s literature is a bit edgier than what is often published in the United States. Did you feel that your book was pushing the limits a little bit or were you confident that it would appeal to a US audience?

KAV: Yes, and that was by design (part of my attempt to diversify the experience of non-Mexican readers).

What’s Next?

APP: I think you definitely accomplished your goal! What’s next for you as a storyteller?

KAV: I am currently working on a second book for Knopf. This is not in the LOTERIA world but will have similar elements: a big philosophical question, magical realism, set in beautiful Mexico. I also have a number of picture books coming out in the next two years with Knopf and Chronicle. As well as a number of story drafts in the pipeline.

And here are some upcoming events:

APP: That is wonderful! I look forward to all of them!

And now for the giveaway! Karla and her publisher have generously agreed to give away a copy of LOTERIA, with beautiful illustrations by Dana Sunmar, to one lucky winner – U.S. entries only please.

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WNDMG Wednesday – Tracey Baptiste on AFRICAN ICONS

We Need Diverse MG Logo hands holding reading globe with stars and spirals floating around
We Need Diverse MG Logo

Illustration by: Aixa Perez-Prado

AFRICAN ICONS on WNDMG Wednesday

Welcome to WNDMG Wednesday–we have quite a treat for you.  New York Times bestselling author Tracey Baptiste is here to talk about her newest book, AFRICAN ICONS, (Algonquin Books, October 2021) which has already garnered a Kirkus Reviews star: “empowering, necessary, required reading for all” and “game-changing.”   AFRICAN ICONS expands how Black History is presented by spotlighting the incredible achievements of ten awe-inspiring African innovators who have been too often ignored by history books.

“In African Icons: Ten People Who Shaped History, Baptiste engages in the hard work of unveiling the myths about the African continent to young readers. She pieces together the stories of ten people in a continent that fueled the world. This is a great beginner’s guide to pre-colonial Africa.”

–Dr. Ibram X. Kendi

(Kendi quote sourced from author’s websiteCover for African Icons book by Tracey Baptiste

AFRICAN ICONS Origin Story

MUF: We’re so excited about your new book …. Can you tell us a little bit about the origin story for AFRICAN ICONS?

TB: This started as a blog post called “Africans Before Slavery” which I wrote in February 2017 Africans before slavery – Tracey Baptiste (wordpress.com). It was a response to the then president of the United States saying some embarrassingly ignorant things at a Black History Month breakfast. A few kidlit writers responded with a series of posts directing educators to better resources about Black people in history. All of their posts though, highlighted Abolition, Freed Slaves, or the Civil Rights movement. This has long been a source of aggravation for me from when my kids would come home with their Black History Month projects and nothing pre-slavery was ever mentioned. So I did some quick research and posted it. My editor, Elise Howard, saw the post and asked if I would like to write an entire book about pre-slavery Black history. Of course, I said yes.

The Research Journey

MUF: Where did you do your research?

TB: I did most of my research in libraries and museums and using online searches for articles. Academia.edu was particularly helpful, but most helpful were professors in African studies, museum curators, librarians at African library collections. Most of my physical searches were in New York City, Boston, and Cambridge, MA.

Illustration from Tracey Baptiste Website

Illustration Sourced from Tracey Baptiste Website: traceybaptiste.com

MUF: Following up on the research question: one of the most exciting/challenging parts of research is following threads of information to unearth new details and source material. Do you have any fun stories that illustrate this part of the journey? Were there any surprises?

TB: One of my favorite research trips was to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where I met with one of the curators, Yaëlle Biro. She walked me through several pieces of art in the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas exhibits which is where I got my first introduction to Queen Mother Idia of Benin. She brought many of the pieces alive for me, and I started to see the real people behind the artworks. The big surprise came with one of the pieces which was covered in Venetian glass beads. It was the first time I saw the real connection in trade between Africa and Europe. I had been looking to find the long-established relationships between the two continents, and it was right there in front of me. I was really excited about that. Then when I left the museum, there was a west African woman selling beaded wire sculptures on the street on the sidewalk. It was exactly in the tradition of the artwork I had just seen behind glass at the Met. So revered inside, but outside, this was street art. A total discard. There weren’t even reproductions of any of the African art pieces at the gift shop. It laid bare for me that despite the displays, African art isn’t valued.

Illustration from AFRICAN ICONS

Illustration sourced from Tracey Baptiste Website: traceybaptiste.com

((Enjoying this interview? Read this archived MUF interview with Tracey about her book THE JUMBIES))

Favorite Icon

MUF: Do you have a favorite icon or part of the book?

TB: My favorite section is probably “Across the Golden Sand.” It was also one of the earliest pieces I wrote for the book. I can see the Berbers lined up and the caravans secured as they cross the dunes. It’s an exciting visual and was a lot of fun to write.

My favorite icon is probably Amanirenas. Imagine going toe to toe with a Caesar and winning! I had never thought of an African Queen being so formidable as to defeat Rome, because it was never in any of my history books. As far as I knew from what I’d read growing up, when Rome was in its heyday, Africans didn’t have anything at all, let alone kingdoms with warriors who would defend their borders against Rome, and diplomats who would negotiate with Caesar himself.

MUF: How did you narrow your list of icons to write about?

TB: The book started with a set of kingdoms and circumstances. When Elise read the first draft, she saw that there were ten icons, and asked me to focus on them. (Actually, there were eleven. We left off one, Prince Alemayehu of Ethiopia, because it was after the period we wanted to cover, and because he didn’t have a lot of agency in his life.)

Biased and Incomplete Records

MUF: Is there anything else I haven’t asked that you want to share with us?

TB: The research was incredibly difficult in large part because of the bias and racism in the written records, and the bias and racism that kept things out of the written records. Often, I would go down rabbit holes of research and find dead ends because no one bothered to follow up on threads. There was one story about a European king who tried to marry his daughter off to an African king because of the wealth coming out of the country, but I could never find anything to verify that story, who the players might have been, or what eventually happened. It was one offhand remark. Maybe it was true, maybe it wasn’t. It’s frustrating not to know for sure.

MUF: We’re grateful that AFRICAN ICONS will now be available to other researchers to fill in the blanks you found. Thank you for your time and many congratulations!

 

Tracey Baptiste Author Photo

Photo Credit: Latifah Abdur Photography

About Tracey Baptiste:

I am the New York Times bestselling author of Minecraft: The Crash, as well as the creepy Caribbean series The  Jumbies, which includes The Jumbies (2015), Rise of the Jumbies (2017), and The Jumbie God’s Revenge (scheduled for 2019). I’ve also written the contemporary YA novel Angel’s Grace and 9  non-fiction books for kids in elementary through high school.

I’m a former elementary school teacher, I do lots of author visits, and I’m on the faculty at Lesley University’s Creative Writing MFA program.

My name is pronounced buhTEEST.

How to stay in touch:

Twitter: @TraceyBaptiste

Instagram: @TraceyBaptisteWrites

Announcing DiverseVoices, Inc.

#DVPit and #DVCon creator Beth Phelan has launched a new, non-profit organization: DiverseVoices, Inc.  Phelan’s mission: “empowering and advocating for book creators from marginalized communities in getting traditionally published within an industry dominated by white, cis-hetero, non-disabled voice” (From the announcement news release)

Phelan, who is DiverseVoices President and, separately, a literary agent with Gallt and Zacker Literary Agency, says she envisions mentorships, grants, a book club, and more–all with the aim toward helping more diverse creators get traditionally published.  “We still have a long way to go in this industry with regard to equitable and inclusive publishing, so we’re currently working on expanding our team so that we can develop more programs to further our mission.”

Among the new programs on the horizon: DVMentor and DVDebut.

The DiverseVoices, Inc. team includes:

  • Vice President: Kat Cho
  • Treasurer: LeKesha Lewis
  •  Secretary: Norma Perez-Hernandez
  • Claribel Ortega
  • Pete Knapp